A mountainous country ruled by clans, dependent on the aid of large and powerful friends, its poor and badly fed population seething with resentment at decades of oppression … yes, Scotland is quite a place.
Tomorrow it goes to the polls to elect a local assembly. As do Wales and Northern Ireland. There’s also a slew of council elections across the UK, and of course the voting referendum.
Outside of a full-bore general election, it’s about as heavy an official political moment as you could get in the UK — and at least one result has the potential for enormous repercussions.
You wouldn’t know it from either the papers or the streets. Though the referendum on first-past-the-post versus optional preferential (AV) has been fought toe to toe in the meeja, canvassers report a significant number of people who have never even heard of it. The contest is made less interesting by the virtual certainty that AV will go down in flames.
The local elections — the next least interesting — are being watched only as a measure of what sort of punishment will be dished out to the Lib-Dems. And in the meeja, the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland polls are getting very little discussion at all.
This is understandable, given all the malarkey going on elsewhere, but it hardly reflects the potential impact of the results.
The local results — in the confusing UK process of having all the big cities (except London) having a third of their seats spilled, some regional authorities having all of their seats spilled and others having a mixture of both — are always a dog’s breakfast, and many councils are in the control of no party, even in coalition.
The only matter of interest is the aggregate of seats lost, and the only party of interest is the Lib-Dems, holding 1850 seats up for grabs. They will try to hold the losses below 400 seats; the smart money is on a 500-600 seat loss. If they cross the 850-seat loss psychological barrier (falling below 1000 seats), it will be a fresh disaster for Nick Clegg and the centre-right “Orange book” leadership of the party.
Wales is really little more than a big local election, yet the poll is not without importance. The assembly has acquired new powers since it was last elected, giving it direct control over health, education and a range of other areas, which hitherto required ratification by Westminster. The principality leans leftward, and though Labour has been in power since the Assembly was created in the late 90s, it is currently in coalition with Plaid Cymru, which is decisively to the left of it.
Now it looks like Labor will not only be able to govern on its own, but will also have a clear majority, as voters return to it in reaction to the Tories’ cuts. That would make the first minister Carwyn Jones a natural oppositional figure. Sadly, he has less national brand recognition than beetroot lemonade.
In Northern Ireland, the assembly campaign is a measure of the manner in which politics has been turned inside out. The government is a coalition of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, the opposition is the Nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party and a couple of diminished Unionist parties.
What was once a place at war is now a bizarre statelet ruled under a three-power arrangement, like some Habsburg Margravate, Westminster, Dublin and Brussels all playing a role — the last of these in the form of generous EU funds, which it would be racist to say amounts to a disguised form of protection money.
For psephs and people who like political you know, content, it is also a genuinely exciting election, first because virtually no opinion polling is done and so the result is often a surprise, and secondly because Sinn Fein (24%) may overhaul the DUP (30%), and take the first minister position, on a 3% swing.
That would be a watershed moment, and a further, though small, step towards reunification. The politics of the place have become very strange, with a True Colours survey on the match between voters’ policy preferences and actual voting. The main result? Most Unionist voters found they were “60%-70%” Sinn Fein. Why? Because Sinn Fein is a modern social democratic party with genuine policies on social issues, while the Unionist are backward loyalist outfits who have taken their working-class electorate for granted for decades.
But the real fight is in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party is surging ahead. Currently governing in minority, with 47 seats out of 129, it is currently polling at 45%, a huge increase on its current 33%. Labor is down to 27% from 32%, the Tories are suffering a slight dip, but the real losers are the Liberal Democrats, whose vote may halve from 16% to 8%.
The SNP has officially ruled out a coalition with the Tories (as a way of reassuring nervous leftish voters that it is a safe place to desert to), and Labour would not accept junior status. Majority government is a big ask for the SNP but not impossible.
Were that to be achieved, the stage would finally be set for a referendum on full independence — something that might also be a big ask, but a process that is buttressed by everything going on around it, the gradual autonomy of Wales, the unique political position of Northern Ireland, and a nationalist party in power north of the border.
Quietly, as the world is turned towards Pakistan, and preferential voting is explained to the electorate as if they were idiots, something big is happening — the UK is coming apart. When it does so, the effects will be felt far beyond Land’s End.